Alison Wood


From ‘Faith to Reason’: conflict and the conversion narrative in Britain (1860-1910)

Doubt and the quest for its transformation is a familiar motif in British literature and culture at the end of the nineteenth-century; that crisis of faith precipitated by the religiously dissolvent literature of the period as Frank Turner puts it. Whether sociological, economic, geological, theological or institutional, doubts proliferated. As did a literary interest in those doubts: Mrs Ward’s Robert Elsmere; George Eliot’s pastoral, parson fiction: Edmund Gosse’s autobiographical observations on the clash of ‘two epochs’; or the ‘ache of modernism’ fundamental to Hardy’s ‘God’s Funeral’ or Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Victorian doubt was an ethical as well as intellectual necessity. It was also popular, figuring in the trade and periodical press and inspiring movement towards religiosity as much as away from it: from orthodoxy to evangelicalism, from atheism to spiritualism, from evangelicalism to agnosticism.

Readings of this period are often intimately bound up with a certain image of secularisation – a process of conflict eventually producing an intellectual and social sphere free from religion, an agreed vacuum. That image, however, is unhelpful: not necessarily entirely incorrect but certainly not complete. My investigation emerges from a certain discontent with this secularisation thesis on the one hand, and observation of the presence of a recurring literary trope emerging concomitant with that concept on the other. For doubt (and by extension the conversion trope) might be read as part of a continuum rather than an exit from a particular sort of paradigm: not loss or crisis but transformation, a re-evaluation via strenuous engagement. How did the familiar trope of conversion function in that re-configuration? Did it inform the language, structure and metaphoric possibility of the concept of the secular? Did it function as a container (metaphoric and discursive) for new forms of knowledge prompted by internal, religiously motivated conflict? Could such conflict be considered not only for its efficacious, dialectical qualities but also its poetic? 

This research addresses such questions with the following hypotheses in mind:

  1. That religious doubt and the conversion trope ‘from faith to reason’ could be exuberant and efficacious; and that it could also offer pleasures;
  2. That those qualities, alongside conflict and a sense of dialectic, were crucial elements of a public secularity emerging at the end of the nineteenth century in Britain;
  3. And, finally, if uncertainty was the new ordinary at the turn of the century then we might reconsider how we understand the work and nature of articulating that sense of uncertainty. Connoisseurship of that uncertainty is both necessary and desirable.


Alison Wood is a Mellon/Newton Postdoctoral Fellow at CRASSH, 2013-present

Her work focuses on the culture, practices and legacies of intellectual labour in nineteenth century Britain, particularly in relation to science post-Darwin, epistemic and religious doubt, and the institutional transformations related to both. Increasingly, her interests also include the structure and function of contemporary universities.

Before joining CRASSH Alison was Research Associate in English for the 'Religion and the Idea of a Research University' Project  at the Faculty of Divinity, also at Cambridge. She read English and History at the University of Adelaide and worked as a musician for several years before undertaking graduate work in English at King's College London (KCL).  Her PhD examined the changing culture of British natural history – its institutions, objects, attractions and people – through the first sustained study of the influential taxonomist, priest and Darwinist TRR Stebbing (1835-1926).

She has held visiting scholarships to the Australian National University and the Yale Centre for British Art; facilitated cross-sector, interdisciplinary research initiatives – including a research cluster on Healthy Ageing (Adelaide, 2004-7), the Centre for Life Writing Research (KCL 2008-10) and the Commodities and Culture Leverhulme Network (KCL 2010-11) – and co-directed a British Academy funded project ‘Negotiating Religion in the Contemporary University' (Cambridge & UCL, 2012-13), experiences which have fostered her enduring interest in both interdisciplinary work and the structure and function of Universities. She currently serves as a member of the University's Researcher Development Committee, the Pro-Vice Chancellor’s Working Group on Post-Doctoral Affairs, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) Research Careers and Training Advisory Group.

At CRASSH she co-convenes the Post-doctoral Forum, organizes the ‘Idea of a University Reading Group’ and  convenes the CRASSH ‘Becoming a Research Leader’ Programme. At Cambridge she is supervisor for the Faculty of Divinity's Part II, Paper B13 ‘Religious Themes in Literature’; has supervised the Faculty of English Part 1 Paper 4 (1830-1910); and is a Research Associate of Lucy Cavendish College.


Special Issue: Editor, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies ‘The Work of Life-Writing’ 25.2 (Winter 2010) (with Clare Brant), with introduction.

Essays: ‘Secularism and the Uses of Literature: English at Cambridge, 1890-1920’. Modern Language Quarterly 75.2 (2014): 259-277.

‘Darwinism, Biology, and Mythology in the ‘Today and Tomorrow’ series, 1923-1929’. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. 34.1 March (2009): 22-31.

‘Operatic Narratives: Textual Transformations in Gwen Harwood and Larry Sitsky’s Golem and Lenz.’ Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature. 5 (2006): 179-191.

Shorter Pieces: ‘The Post-Doctoral System: Core Issues and Plausible Ambitions’. A working paper for the University of Cambridge, May 2015.

Religion and the Idea of a Research University Project Blog (2011-2013) (eg. ‘A Global University Summit’, ‘Knowing About Religion and the Secular Age’, ‘Chaos Control… you like, you like?’)

‘An Energetic Carcinologist: T.R.R. Stebbing and his Natural History Societies’. Proceedings of the Torquay Natural History Society (2013): 99-108.

 ‘Evil Envoy’. Review of Sax Rohmer’s The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu, The Hand of Dr. Fu-Manchu (Titan, reissued 2012). Times Literary Supplement 14 December 2012.

‘The Royal Society and Twentieth Century Science’. Viewpoint (Newsletter of the British Society for the History of Science). No.92, June 2010.

‘Exploring the Stebbing Collection’. Foyle Special Collections Year in Review. December 2008.

Selected Papers & Presentations

Conversions to Evolution’. Invited paper, ‘The Darwins Reconsidered’, University of Roehampton, 4 September 2015.

The Professionalisation Workshop, North American Victorian Studies Association 2015 (Honolulu) and 2013 (Venice). Keynote speaker and workshop leader for sessions on ‘Proposals and Grant Writing’, ‘Paths Post-PhD in Arts and Humanities’ and ‘Alt-Ac Careers’.

 ‘The Afterlives of Newman’s Idea of the University’. NAVSA, Honolulu, Hawaii 9-12 July 2015.

Fictions of the Past: The Biblical and Classical Past of the Nineteenth-Century Novel, Symposium. Respondent. CRASSH, University of Cambridge, 6 November 2014.

‘Sustainable Paths Post-PhD’. Keynote, Professionalisation Workshop, British Association for Victorian Studies Conference, University of Kent, 5-7 September 2014.

'The Language of Excellence and Post-Doctoral Researcher Development'. Invited paper, Association of Commonwealth Universities Conference: Steering Institutional Strategy, the critical roles of HR and PR, University of Glasgow, 13-16 July 2014.

‘Have Universities Lost Control of their Own Destiny?’. Keynote, Association of Commonwealth Universities Centenary Conference: Future Forward: Taking Charge of Change, London, 16-18 October 2013.

‘Local Amateurs, Global Professionals: late nineteenth-century taxonomy and the idea of intellectual labour in the age of profusion’. NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA Conference, Venice, 3-6 June 2013.

‘TRR Stebbing and His Natural History Societies’. Invited lecture, Torquay Museum Society, 23 April 2013.

‘From Faith to Reason: Conversion Narratives and the Value of Doubt’. British Association for Victorian Studies conference, University of Sheffield, 30 August-1 September 2012.

‘Religion, Reform and the Context of ‘English’ at Cambridge’. Invited paper. Lessons from the Past: a Seminar on the Emergence of University English, University of Wollongong, 27 April 2012.

‘Zoological Things, Global Traffic and the Idea of a Secular Clerisy’. Invited paper. Commodities and Culture Leverhulme Network Workshop, New York University, 8-10 December 2011.

‘Image and Wonder: Stebbing, Gosse and the Miraculous Lens’. Invited paper, Shows of London Symposium, King’s College London. 7 November 2010: and to the London Nineteenth Century Seminar, Institute of English Studies, London, 19 Feb 2011.

‘Small Wonders: Zoological Microscopy and the Writing of Nature in Late Nineteenth Century Britain’. North American Victorian Studies Association conference, Montréal, 11-13 November 2010.

‘How Nature ‘Up Close’ became Lovely: the Aesthetics of Late Victorian Taxonomic Zoology’. Natural Dialogues, Yale Centre for British Art, Yale University, 21-22 Feb 2009.

‘Darwin, Stebbing and the Pacific’. Biannual PhD workshop in Environmental History, Australian National University, 27-31 Oct 2008.


Mellon/Newton Fellow


October 2013 - Present


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